Part III on Change: Levels of Abstraction

During an teacher leadership workshop I was leading a few years ago, a veteran teacher said this to me:

“It feels like every time I go to present a new idea to my principal, she shoots it down just because it’s coming from me. It’s like she says ‘no’ just because I’m the one with the idea. I keep thinking that if she heard it from anyone other than me, she’d give a different answer.”

My response: “You’re probably right.”

That doesn’t make it fair or valid, but the reality of human interactions is that there are times where who is doing the talking matters. As I got to know this particular teacher and his situation, it was pretty clear that he and his principal had a history of conflicts…most of them petty…which colored their relationship. Wrong as it might be, the principal was saying “no” because of the messenger and his track record, not the message itself.

Being skeptical or “resistant” to new ideas or to changes in practice is not a bad thing. We should allow ourselves time and space to think, process, and make decisions about the new. However, we also ought to be mindful of what exactly it is we are resisting.

I’ve been reading quite a bit about all of this, and the problem (I suppose) with all that reading is that I approached it as a learner, not as the writer of a research paper. Thus, I cannot cite perfectly for you from where these ideas came… I did go back into a few books to try to locate the proper provenance, but so far as I can tell, the ideas I’m about to share are neither mine more attributable to a single source. While I can’t confidently cite my source, the themes are drawn largely from works about instructional coaching (Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman, Robert Marzano et al., Elena Aguilar, Jim Knight), PLCs (Rick Dufour), and a variety of materials from the organization Learning Forward. …Plus tons of random reading on the web.

That disclaimer attended to, the idea represented by my teacher who believes that he himself is what his principal was resisting is one that I bet many of us of seen. From my reading, I developed the realization that as we examine resistance to change in ourselves or in others, a good place to start is by examining the level of abstraction against which resistance is happening.

From most concrete to most abstract in terms of foci of resistance:

The Person: Is it truly a case that we cannot accept the message because of our feelings about the messenger? Who is leading and advocating for change, their credibility, experience, and relationship with colleagues, all contribute to whether we might resist at this very concrete, personal level. I’d venture that many of us have an added layer of skepticism when an idea comes from a less than trustworthy source.

The Practice: Is it what we’re being asked to do that is the problem? A little more abstract than resisting the person, sometimes what we are being asked to do in practice is something we disagree with, lack the skills to tackle, or don’t understand well enough to engage with.

The Policy: Sometimes what we’re really having trouble with is the rule. Perhaps it is unclear, unjust, or uninformed. Sometimes as a result, we end up feeling powerless, subject to the rule of poor policy, and this colors how we react.

The Philosophy: There are changes that we might simply disagree with on a fundamental, philosophical level. I’d argue that this level of abstraction is the most difficult to reconcile resistance against.

The bigger issue is that it takes some serious time, reflection, and conversation to discern what we (or others) might really be resisting. What is really a frustration with policy might manifest as resistance to a person. A disagreement on philosophy might lead teachers to resist the implementation of a practice. Similarly, a lack of understanding of a practice might seem like immovable opposition to philosophy, when in reality, the resistance is rooted in concern about new ways of addressing an issue.

Further complicating things, like all the rest of the real world, it’s not as simple as classifying resistance in only one level of abstraction. When I think about my dilemma around interest-based bargaining, I know that some folks are opposing this as a practice in part because of their perception of the people involved: if we resist the idea that the people involved can act in a trustworthy, above-board manner, then it becomes easy to oppose the practice.

My point: we have to think about these things if we want to navigate change. The TTWWADI I already mentioned in a previous post can be a mask that prevents us from uncovering the level of abstraction against which people might be resisting. When we get a sense of what degree of abstraction is the obstacle, we can identify the right questions to ask and the right actions to take.


This is part three of a series considering change in systems, schools, and classrooms. Click for Part I and Part II.

2 thoughts on “Part III on Change: Levels of Abstraction

  1. Tom White

    This is a great read, Mark. But I think you give us too much credit. A lot of people resist change simply because it means more work.

  2. Mark Gardner Post author

    Yes, but think of those times that you DID put in the work to change your practice. What convinced you to change, even though it meant more work? When we see value in things, we’re willing to put in the work. There are a variety of potential barriers to seeing the value in things… if we’re trying to shift the system, we have to consider the potential barriers that people are up against in order to know how to best support the system toward improvement.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in favor of change for change’s sake…nor do I believe that “new” is inherently better. Some changes are beyond our control, some we are subject to or directed to take on… facilitating those changes can make a huge difference in job satisfaction and student learning alike.

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